Formations: Are they worth the whiteboard they’re written on?

In Depth

Formations. We love to discuss and debate them, but are they even relevant anymore? Pep Guardiola says they’re “nothing more than telephone numbers”.

Tactical discussion is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, but even your Average Joe now acknowledges that football games can be decided by more than simply the quality of the players and how well they perform on the day.

It’s even acceptable now to start a debate in a pub about the merits of 4-2-3-1 compared to 4-4-2, or state why Chelsea’s switch to a 3-4-3 might cause particular problems for your team. This sort of conversation now dominates the build-up to games; it’s no longer the preserve of what would once have been considered football geeks.

But is it meaningful? Traditionally, 4-4-2 may have been a fairly accurate representation of each player’s position, but can three, four or even five numbers adequately describe how a professional team sets up in the modern day?

We asked Michael Cox, better known as Zonal Marking.

“Yes, I think so,” he says. “More so in a defensive sense. Broadly speaking, you can still see quite a solid structure to most sides when they’re without the ball.

“I think the entire point of attacking in the modern age is about breaking structure and about getting players between the lines and changing positions. It’s obviously problematic in that sense (to try to explain a team’s set up with a formation), but defensively I still think it works very well.

“There are obviously nuances with formations, especially Guardiola’s teams which are very fluid and flexible, but there’s still a fundamental difference between playing three at the back and four at the back. It’s always easy to identify which is which so I think this kind of discussion is still worthwhile.

“The formation is essentially used to explain to people who haven’t seen the game what shape a team used, and I still think that’s relevant.”

Interchangeable positions

Jurgen Klopp made the same point about the differences between defensive and attacking shape after Liverpool had beaten Hull City 5-1 in 2016.

Asked by Sky Sports how many forwards he had played, Klopp said he “doesn’t think too much about systems”.

“We defend in a 4-4-2, because the No.6 is then in the centre,” Klopp said. “(But) In possession it (the formation) can be everything.”

Klopp said that seven players could be involved in a Liverpool attack but that “these positions could be anybody”.

In other words, it would be impossible to explain the positions of Liverpool’s players using a formation grid.

Cox acknowledges this but believes formations are still useful to describe a team’s defensive shape and positions, particularly those lower down the food chain that rarely dominate games.

“Even if a team is more fluid in an attacking sense, at the back it’s more structured than ever I would argue,” he says. “It’s maybe not so much about formations any more, but there’s still a great emphasis on structure.

“I think the important point is how long teams spend in possession and how long the passing moves are. You can only be fluid in attack if you have an attack that lasts more than 30 seconds, and there are certain teams that don’t have attacks that long so can’t really change positions.

“I think that’s to a certain extent why Guardiola’s systems are sometimes difficult to decipher because they do spend so long in possession, therefore changing position and being fluid.

“In the route one days you didn’t have that time, you’d just be pushing up and down the pitch in a formation, and positions were pretty easy to grasp.”

Guardiola’s structure

Guardiola may have talked down the importance of formations publicly, but Scottish-born European journalist Graham Hunter says there was more structure to the Spaniard’s Barcelona teams than he let on.

“There’s no question, whatsoever, that in the very best part of Guardiola’s time in charge you could screenshot the pitch and see a 4-3-3. That would definitely be visible in certain moments of matches when the team was obeying his orders.

“When the team was beginning a move, to play out from the back, you’d be able to take that screenshot. Guardiola spent lots of time waving his wingers out to the touchline, and if the midfield was a three then what you’d quickly see was the full-backs spread very wide indeed, but they’d still be in a basic four formation.

“Within seconds, of course, Sergio Busquets would drop back to pick up, Carles Puyol would cede the ball to him, Dani Alves and to a certain extent Eric Abidal would push higher and you might have a 3-4-3.

“During Guardiola’s era, while the starting shape was of course 4-3-3, the emphasis needs to be placed far more on the term positional play. But that’s another chat. This subject is a rabbit hole!”

Perhaps that sums up the difference between tactical discussion in Britain and on the continent. As a nation we’re still not delving anywhere near as deeply into the subject as many others.

“Fans and media in Spain and Italy discuss and analyse formations much much more than in the UK,” Hunter says. “And usually better.

“For the best part of my life and working career you’d not be able to get fans, the vast majority of journalists and most footballers too, I fear to think about, talk about and analyse the merits or demerits of certain formations.

“Football in the UK was much more about effort, attitude, individual skill, team spirit than about the kind of detailed, forensic examination of formations than it is now.

“It’s a good thing that those discussions are now taking place. In due course that will lead to better educated, more aware, more flexible and inventive coaches and footballers. But it’s an evolution.

“Right now, everyone on social media or with a website is an expert in formations and tactics. Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

“I see and hear many people stating ‘definitely’ this and ‘definitely’ that about a formation or a specific tactic, but what I’ve been taught by players and coaches in my career is that all formations are basic skeletons via which a strategy or a tactic can attempt to be played out.

“They must be flexible, they must be tailored either specifically to the team’s own personnel and philosophy or to the opposition because a coach wants to place more emphasis on stopping/blunting the other team.

“When people talk about the numbers in formations it can lead them to skim the surface and place all the worth on the formation rather than on the combination of the players plus the formation plus the specific tactics which the coach has asked for against the opposition.

“The UK has caught up late to something upon which the big continental nations were fixated far sooner. That leads to attitudes and phrases which might not seem to you to be worth much, but the broad trend for people to think more and analyse more is good.”

A good example of what Hunter says regarding over-confidence regarding a particular formation was the widely-held belief that 4-2-3-1 would render the 4-4-2 useless.

That theory was rather shown up by Leicester City winning the Premier League title using a 4-4-2 last season, but there are not even any positional differences between the two set-ups anyway. Both consist of four defenders, two holding midfielders, with two wingers, a No.9 and a No.10.

The only real differences between the traditional 4-4-2 and modern 4-2-3-1 are that the No.10 is now often an advanced midfielder like Dele Alli as opposed to a withdrawn forward like Shinji Okazaki, while wingers are known as wide forwards that cut inside rather than look to reach the byline.

Cox almost questions whether the formation even exists.

“Sometimes I think it’s a trick to convince forwards they can play in wide positions,” he says. “If you say, ‘you’re playing wide in a 4-4-2’ they’ll be like, ‘I’m not having that’.

“Instead in a 4-2-3-1 it sounds a bit more exciting and doesn’t sound like they’re being shoved into a completely new role.

“On the pitch, it never really looks like 4-2-3-1 because the wingers drop back alongside the holding midfielders without the ball then push forward high up the pitch when attacking to essentially form a front four. It’s almost 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-4.

“You don’t ever really get a 4-2-3-1 in a freeze-frame, which is interesting.”

By Mark Holmes

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